Two IT leaders in the water treatment industry overcame seemingly insurmountable odds during the COVID-19 lockdown to lead a successful go-live of SAP S/4HANA, enabling a strategic goal of providing predictive maintenance to their customers.

Delivering clean water to billions across the globe is no easy feat. According to the United Nations, 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. De Nora is on the front lines of these environmental problems, developing and distributing mission-critical water treatment technologies to fight water scarcity. De Nora also provides solutions that support a shift from fossil fuels to the hydrogen economy, or the use of hydrogen as low-carbon energy.

Enabling the technology to build and deliver these solutions is something that happens quietly behind the scenes with complex enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, which track every transaction. These ERP systems are often many years or even decades old. Replacing old ERP with a new system is a major project, especially for a global enterprise. Add a global pandemic and the challenge is multiplied.

Bianca Madotta and Monique Pietropaoli, IT project leaders from Milan-based De Nora Group, have done it.

They led a massive global ERP implementation of SAP S/4HANA for De Nora Water Technologies, which will enable predictive, proactive maintenance to customers and enable them to focus on what matters: clean water.

Founded in 1923, De Nora is a pioneer in electrochemical technology and the world’s largest manufacturer of insoluble electrodes for almost every electrochemical process. De Nora continues its leadership by pressing forward with a multi-year digital transformation that began in 2013 when the company implemented SAP ERP with the goal of harmonizing business processes. De Nora experienced significant growth in 2015, driven by a series of acquisitions to consolidate its water treatment technologies business, which then led to the need to consolidate ERP onto SAP S/4HANA.

Pietropaoli, Project Management Professional and SAP Business Manager for De Nora Water Technologies, explained how the company managed such a large project: “We used a phased approach, with the first being the upgrade of the existing businesses onto SAP S/4HANA, followed by a full configuration and implementation in three U.S. locations.”

While the SAP S/4HANA upgrade was fully completed in Italy for the Corporate and the Electrode Technologies companies around the world, the U.S. phase for De Nora Water Technologies began in Texas and Pennsylvania locations. The team included 36 in the U.S., 20 in Milan, and 20 more from partner Capgemini. De Nora originally planned to have a team from Italy on the ground in the U.S. as they approached their go-live date in April 2020, but the pandemic prevented this. With the project already underway, Pietropaoli and Madotta recommended pushing forward with the team working remotely.

As Madotta, corporate head of Demand Management and Business Applications, explained, “COVID-19 exploded while we were approaching our training and test phase, which we planned to do on-site with the users. We considered postponing the go-live date, but considering the impacts on all the other upcoming activities and the frustration this would cause, we stuck to our plan — a challenge that was considered doable given the good preparation and the dedication of the whole team.”

Pietropaoli admits there was concern about the schedule falling behind. “I was very concerned about training and the large amount of knowledge transfer that needed to take place for our key users to be ready. We knew that a lot of time would be lost working remotely. Everything was at the mercy of connection issues, late arrivals, and audio or video difficulties. So we completely changed the approach. We brought in a third-party online training system to provide a predefined, standard SAP S/4HANA curriculum. We doubled the training time provided by our consultant, Capgemini, and recorded all training sessions so everyone had 24/7 access.”

With the remote execution plan underway, both leaders faced another set of challenges: juggling home and work life and the seven-hour time-zone difference. “Working longer than eight hours per day is quite normal for our technology team, especially during the final stages of a project, but usually those activities are carried out onsite and do not affect families. Working in this way is not easy for children and spouses,” Madotta shared.

“Meetings were always entertaining because everyone was dealing with the same home situation,” Pietropaoli added. “I would be on calls and hear family in the background and babies crying. My husband and children were very supportive and often brought meals to me.”

Despite all the challenges they faced, Madotta and Pietropaoli led their teams to a successful go-live with no time lost from their original timeline. De Nora Water Technologies CEO Mirka Wilderer stated, “Even when faced with a global pandemic that sent everyone home and forced major changes to our execution plans, everyone demonstrated resilience and we were able to surge through to success. This truly showcases the ability of the team to rise to the challenge and drive innovative approaches to solve problems.”

De Nora will continue its phased implementation plan across the remaining Water Technologies companies and geographies armed with the lessons learned from this phase of the project. Madotta explained that this will change how they approach training in the future. “Good training for De Nora end users is not a mere technical user manual, but must also include a deep explanation of best practices and procedures.”

With nine De Nora companies now using SAP S/4HANA, the company is seeing some early benefits, including helping eliminate the manual effort required to reconcile the financials between business units every month. This has accelerated closings by reducing the steps required by a third.

“Implementing SAP S/4HANA during these extraordinarily difficult times required everyone to step up,” Wilderer said. “And thanks to the fantastic efforts of the entire team involved, we are already streamlining operations and improving customer outcomes.”